“Doug Jones wants abortion to be allowed until the moment before birth,” one ad blared. “A vote for Doug Jones is a vote for more black abortions, no school choice, and higher taxes for job creators,” said another. The ads described a candidate who didn’t exist. Jones, who won last night’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate, is no radical. His pro-choice views are in line with the Democratic mainstream, meaning that he supports the right to choose and current restrictions on late-term abortions. Conventional wisdom asserts that this position should have cost him last night’s race against Roy Moore.
Jones’s unlikely victory points back to his opponent. In any other year, Moore would have been an outlier, a freak. With Donald Trump in office, however, Moore is part of a pattern. The president’s early endorsement of the establishment apparatchik Luther Strange always seemed more like a forced concession than a demonstration of true feeling. In his flamboyant disregard for democratic norms, his insistence that mounting sexual misconduct allegations are “fake news,” and his reliance on the deep antipathy conservatives hold toward liberals, Moore resembled Trump. And like Trump, he scooped up most of the white votes in his election and a stunning 80 percent of white evangelical votes.
Hypocrisy? Maybe. But that is not how white evangelicals understand it. Most of Roy Moore’s voters didn’t think they supported an accused pedophile; they simply didn’t believe the allegations that he molested and preyed on teenage girls when he was in his thirties. They decided it was a cruel myth, invented by D.C. wheelers-and-dealers to destroy a godly man. A strong thread connects this delusion to Moore’s anti-abortion rhetoric: If someone would kill an unborn baby, can you really believe anything they say?
The pro-life movement now finds itself inside a trap that it built. Its claim to moral superiority rests on the totalizing depravity of the opposition. Without a foil, pro-lifers must depend instead on the strength of their arguments, and the idea that ending a pregnancy is equivalent to taking the life of a child or adult has not convinced most Americans. And now it’s becoming more difficult than ever to uphold this dichotomy between the righteous and the fallen, and to pretend that pro-life candidates belong firmly to the former camp.
“No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted U.S. Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith,” Christianity Today editorialized hours before voters rejected Moore. “When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation.” This is an eloquent half-truth. The loser isn’t the Christian faith but political evangelicalism, doomed by a marriage it made decades ago.
White evangelicals may genuinely believe abortion is murder, but they also believe that a failure to agree with them indicates some deep spiritual brokenness. This is a kind of political presuppositionalism—the idea that a Christian can’t reason with a non-Christian since only Christians are capable of reason—and it is reaching the end of a useful life. It owes its demise to the broken spiritual state of the Republican Party, exemplified not only by Roy Moore and Donald Trump but also by the supply-siders and law-and-order fetishists.
On Tuesday, Jones flipped 12 counties that voted for Trump last year. In one of the night’s most dramatic results, Tuscaloosa County shifted 36 points from Trump to Jones. It is the state’s Black Belt, however, that really deserves credit for Jones’s win. It’s home to a high concentration of black voters, and they turned out in spectacular numbers to reject Moore. Considered together, these results disprove one of the oldest canards about Southern politics: that you need to run pro-life candidates to win. Jones’s upset is the latest data point in an emerging trend. Democrats flipped a number of historically conservative districts in Virginia to give Republicans a real fight for control of the House of Delegates. They have flipped other red state seats in Oklahoma and Georgia.
This change in conventional wisdom couldn’t come at a more crucial time. Pro-life politics didn’t take root with a wave of Jerry Falwell’s hand. The Christian right invested money and decades of skilled grassroots work to turn the pro-life label into a form of tribal affiliation. It changed minds. The Democratic Party’s best chance to secure its success for the long term, then, is to do the same. It must not cede ground so willingly on abortion, as if it is embarrassed of its own position.
In Alabama, the white voters Jones did convert have maybe learned something black voters already understood. Pro-life politics don’t guarantee moral behavior. A politician like Roy Moore can talk about saving babies one moment and lie about being banned from malls the next. Black voters in Alabama confronted decades of Republican-led voter suppression efforts to vote for Doug Jones last night. The poverty they disproportionately experience is the deliberate creation of a Republican Party determined to block any expansion of the welfare state. Black Alabamians have a very good idea of what white evangelical morality means.
Jones replaces Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a pro-life Republican who is as hostile to affirmative action as he is amenable to expanding the authority of American police. Abortion stops a beating heart, the Moore campaign warned—but so do police. Yet, American conservatives are still likelier to protest abortion than the killings of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
The lie of the “pro-life” label—with all the moral superiority it implies—is one that many white voters are about to learn. The GOP-controlled Congress continues its attempts to undermine the country’s health care system and funnel more money to the wealthy. By insisting on pro-choice candidates, Democrats have a chance not only to win seats, but also to assert the moral claims of being part of the pro-choice camp. “It’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor,” Charles Barkley told CNN on Tuesday night. “They’ve always had our votes, and they have abused our votes, and this is a wake-up call. We’ve got them in a great position now, but this is a wake-up call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people.” It can’t do that by conceding abortion to the party of Trump.